after-school Hebrew School. The rest of the time—at school, in the workplace, and socializing with non-Jewish friends—they did their best to make sure faith wouldn’t ‘get in the way.’ But fundamental assumptions have changed since the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, Jewish identity and American identity are no longer viewed as two opposing forces in need of reconciliation. As Bill Plevan, a young leader of the Conservative Movement and an ordained rabbi, points out, “Negotiating being American and being Jewish is not as difficult anymore, because it’s a very comfortable time to be Jewish in America.” In addition, rather than adopting an identity solely out of membership in any one group, it is the fashion today for individuals to forge their own paths out of personal searches for authentic meaning. The combination of these two trends is resulting in the possibility of a third trend, small but strong, and often not taken into account
Hebrew School is relegated to the category of extracurricular activities—enriching and character-building, to be juggled somewhere between piano lessons and soccer team.
though, young adults are freely and seriously exploring forms of Jewish affiliation other than those espoused by their parents. For many young adults coming from the Hebrew School mentality, college is the first time they come into contact with peers who practice a higher level of religious observance. They watch their peers celebrate Shabbat, they are turned down when attempting to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, and they experience new holidays, whose existence previously was hazy, at best. Throughout all this, some feel they are recovering pieces of a puzzle possibly lost to that day when they pretended to be sick to get out of going to Hebrew School or climbed out the classroom window. As they learn about the why’s and how’s of religious observance, some find, much to their own surprise, that they actually prefer a holistic system of observance to the compartmentalization of religion with which they were raised. This is why it has become more broadly accepted—even, in some circles, hip—to be openly and conscientiously Jewish, because the decision to live an identity through all aspects of one’s life comes across as respectable and authentic. Now that it has become less necessary to navigate the boundary between being an “American Jew” and a “Jewish American,” our generation feels free to navigate ways to our own amalgamation of Jewish life. Whether it is an observant Judaism, a bagels-and-lox-eating Judaism, an environmentally-friendly Judaism, or something new altogether, thoughtful young Jews are finding themselves on college campuses through creating their own identities which they find intellectually viable and personally satisfying. How they will teach these identities to their children remains to be seen. Deborah Fishman married a nice Jewish boy she met in college and they now live
in community surveys. Young people are exploring an internal and intellectual approach to a Judaism which is not just conventional tradition, but a holistic way of life: a Judaism of the brain. The emerging spiritual communities where these new trends are percolating and coalescing is the same place where societal trends have always percolated and coalesced: on college campuses. College is the socially accepted time for experimentation. When young adults leave home to live on their own for four years, their parents have the latent expectation that they will change somehow, hopefully grow up, and maybe even find themselves (or, failing that, at least find a spouse). Given a new, stimulating environment filled with opportunities for independence, young people reinvent themselves—several times over, if necessary. It used to be that Jews were merely tolerated on college campuses. Now, they are actively lured to themed Shabbat dinners and studybreaks, which have ushered in a new era of Jewish creativity and bad puns, as events such as “Hookah in the Sukkah” and “Pizza in the Hut” vie for young Jews’ attendance. Our own peers solicit our membership in groups such as klezmer bands, Jewish a cappella, Israel clubs, Jews for Social Justice, Jewish women’s groups—and the list goes on. In the aggregate, these events and groups provide much more than opportunity for Jewish socialization. They build a Jewish community—a very unique and new kind of Jewish community, composed of diverse young people who eat, live and learn together. This community is founded in an intellectual environment, where professors come to speak at Shabbat dinners, where conversations flow freely between secular and religious topics. In this open environment of experimentation, young Jews are even given the ability to drift between different styles of services, which might have aroused consternation in other contexts. In college, paradigm shift PresenTensemagazine.org
an observant lifestyle in Chicago.
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issue four 2008
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